How to Make Friends in China

Dear Readers,
Staying in one place in China for a month is a very different experience than hopping around from city to city. The best thing about it is you get to make friends! Making friends in China is not that different from making friends anywhere else. The Chinese are generally quite informal like Americans. They say hey, and then they hang out. When you buy something from someone, the next time they see you, hey, you’re a friend! And you didn’t even know it. And if you stay with a family, like I did, you really become family and get included in everything they do, even going to visit a sick grandchild in the hospital.
When you’re an author, making friends and becoming family is very important. Your inspiration and ideas will often come from these relationships. So here are some tips and helpful hints on HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS IN CHINA 🙂 !
1. Say hello. 9642017893_52fe1de959_bNi hao.
2. Do not hide in a cave. 9642018303_fe5da714b9_b3. If you’re meeting an older person, call them “teacher” or “doctor” or “waiter,” or “salesperson,” or “driver.” If you don’t know any of those words, use “shifu” which means “master,” of whatever it is they do.  It’s not considered rude to address the person by their profession, it’s respectful.
4. Eat breakfast together. IMG_6935This is NiuNiu. She’s the four-year-old granddaughter of my landlady. We had breakfast together every morning. This was our typical breakfast, set out on a folding table in the alleyway in front of their home:IMG_75795. Eat lunch together. IMG_7095JiaHui, my training partner, is on my right, and XiaoHai, a Shaolin kung fu monk, is on my left. We are hanging out at our favorite village snack shop during lunch and eating-everything-in-sight-before-they-throw-us-out. IMG_7088IMG_70856. Eat dinner together.IMG_7374My friend Debbie Alvarez, a k a the Styling Librarian, and her family, Declan (left) and Doug (center) came from Hong Kong to train in kung fu with me during my third week. Here we are sharing one of many dinners together. Yummy!
7. If the food is good, say so! IMG_7376Declan loves jiaozi. Who doesn’t?
8. Make jiaozi together. IMG_7316Here is XiangXiang, my house mother/landlady. She’s getting the dough ready. First, she cuts it up:9645193920_4b14c668e3_bThen she rolls it out and chops it into little balls:IMG_7325Then she rolls it out into mini, paper-thin crepes:IMG_7331Then she fills them with vegetarian stuffing! IMG_7333Everything was grown in her garden except for the flour, salt and water! It smelled SO yummy already! Look how beautiful her jiaozi were:IMG_7342Her masterpieces are on the left. Mine and Debbie’s on the bottom right. XiangXiang’s daughter, DanDan, Debbie and I jumped right in and made the rest of the dumplings for our dinner that night: IMG_7349IMG_73539645184204_9e61a58e11_b9645263652_d4ec32228e_b9645263434_75058f873e_bHey, where did Declan get that fork??? See #9 below.
9. Use chopsticks. 9642016767_aee4b7c9a6_bYou don’t have a choice unless you had snuck a fork into your luggage. There are no forks or knives on Chinese tables. A soupspoon is provided if there is soup. Do not eat with your fingers, except for bread. Do not lower your head to your plate to inhale. It will not make you friends in China, you can be sure of that.
10.Visit the garden where your food came from. IMG_6945XiangXiang was very proud to show me her gorgeous, prolific and ORGANIC garden. It feeds her family year-round. IMG_6954 IMG_730411. Don’t have a garden? Can’t make jiaozi? Try hand-made noodles. Here’s JiaHui using his hands to kneed the dough:IMG_7016Meanwhile XiaoHai is throwing cabbage into a wok to boil with the noodles:IMG_7011We are at BeBe’s house, a few doors down from where I was staying. Bebe is XiaoHai’s girlfriend. She’s making the hand-cut noodles:IMG_7006IMG_7010They’re beautiful! Until XiaoHai boils them for too long and it becomes one HUGE lumpy dumpling that we divide into four bowls. It’s still kinda yummy and we eat it all up without a word. It was super-duper quiet. Then Jia Hui begins to cry.IMG_7025Softly at first. Then full-blast! IMG_7026Poor JiaHui! When the dinner you wanted to make to impress your friends is completely ruined, it’s okay to cry your eyes out.
12. Fuggeddaboudit. Grab a cab and take your friends to a snack shop in Dengfeng. IMG_7028The four of us pigged out on snacks and smoothies :). And XiaoHai paid the bill :)! It made up for the huge glob of doughy mess that we had all swallowed earlier to be polite. And now that we were laughing about it instead of crying, we got very hungry. Snacks don’t fill you up, they only make you hungrier. So we left the snack shop and headed up the street.
13. Go straight to the night market. IMG_7030The Dengfeng night market is full of good smells and delicious treats. Vendors call out to you to try nuts! dumplings! hot peppers! lamb! fish! chicken! everything! We inspected it ALL before deciding where to eat again . . . IMG_7032IMG_7034IMG_7036IMG_7038The man above is grilling a fish. Can you guess what is in the bowl below?IMG_7029Live SCORPIONS! If you eat one (cooked) you will surely impress your friends. If you eat one uncooked, you will not impress anyone. You will be dead.
14. Stay away from scorpions. Here JiaHui, BeBe and XiaoHai are picking out some yummy things for the lady to cook for us:IMG_7041Third dinner arrives! IMG_7044And third dinner disappears, fastIMG_7048That’s the thing about eating with kung fu dudes. You gotta eat like a vacuum cleaner -on-the-shag-carpet-setting or you won’t get any of it. Kung fuing makes you very hungry all the time! And thirsty!
15. Drink tea together.IMG_6889                                                               Friends spend hours drinking tea in China. This is the old-fashioned way of holding a teacup so that you can sip it discreetly behind your hands (and keep your tea warm). But it’s okay nowadays to hold it with one hand and slurp it like a real modern brute who’s holding a cellphone in the other hand and doing the unthinkable — texting while sipping.  Don’t like tea? Well, that’s like saying you don’t like whiskey in Ireland, or vodka in Russia, or beer in Germany, or milk in the U.S., or melted ice in Antarctica. It’s simply impossible.  Tea is the glue that holds Chinese society together. In the U.S., they say, “Got milk?” In China, they say, “He cha,” drink tea.                                                                                                           Lest you think that all you need is to eat or drink something to make a friend in China . . .
16. Learn some Chinese.9645102576_038d5f7d0a_bNative speakers know Chinese is not easy for those of us who weren’t doing  flashcards while still inside our mummy’s tummy, so everyone is very helpful. If you don’t know how to say something, ask. It’s a great way to make friends. Soon you’ll have a list of nouns and verbs you can use. Then you’ll make more friends!
17. Then you can say “xiexie” when someone gives you flowers:IMG_7060This is ShangShang. He’s eight, and one of Shaolin’s youngest and fiercest kung fu monks. We were heading home after practice one afternoon when he jumped into a tree and picked these flowers for me. Isn’t that sweet? A woman saw him and started screaming stark-raving-mad and chasing after him. He’s little, but he runs like water!
18. Can’t jump into a tree? Do a little calligraphy. IMG_6910It’s the highest of the arts in China. Almost as high as jumping into a tree, but not quite. Ladies won’t come screaming after you. But you’ll make friends who will express quiet admiration.                                                                                                                                 Not a calligraphy master? No worries.
19. Practice on the wall. IMG_7525Yan Mi introduced himself by writing his name in water on the wall at the yaojue (pharmacy/infirmary), where I went to get treatment for an injury. Then I wrote my name on the wall, then we were friends just like that. Here’s Yan Mi getting carried away while I went in to see the doctor :IMG_7526Here I am inside the yaojue:IMG_7413I hurt my back at the beginning of my fourth week. I could hardly walk. My outer warrior just couldn’t keep up with my inner warrior. I was in terrible pain.  But what’s that on top of me? It’s a smoking house. If you look closely, you will see white wisps of smoke coming from it. It works like a heating pad. First the doctor lights a roll of herbs on fire: IMG_7409Then he places the herbs in the box and closes the lid. Then the box gets hotter and hotter. The doctor raises the floor of the box higher and higher so that you don’t get burned, until all the herbs have burned away. It feels really good, like a heating pad, and smells like a herbally campfire. Mmmm. Then guess what?
20. You get acupuncture! IMG_7421WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!                                                                                        But it’s a really good way to make friends with the doctor:IMG_7425Who watches over you the whole time, not like doctors in the U.S. who rush from patient to patient. That’s my shifu on the table behind him, who came in complaining of not feeling well. The older doctor stayed with him.  My handsome young doctor said I needed to come back for more treatment the next day. So I did 🙂 !
21. Follow doctor’s orders 🙂 ! Here’s a better view of the smoking house from the next day:

Then I got a treatment called moxibustion. It’s very scary. It’s involves fire and hot glass. It hurts even more than acupuncture. You can watch it here, however, viewer discretion is advised — it’s very scary, especially if you don’t like seeing a helpless little children’s author squealing in pain:

22. Get invited to come back to the infirmary everyday 🙂 !

23. Go to the hospital — with your landlady to visit her grandson.IMG_7075This is WanHo with his mom. He’s four. He was hospitalized for a week with a fever. Entire families stay with their sick children, sleeping in the same beds with them. It was very crowded and dirty, and not a doctor in sight. Not one. Not like it was in the the temple infirmary which was quiet and clean with doctors everywhere.

24. Share a treat. IMG_7435This is WanHo’s twin sister, NiuNiu, who had yogurt with me at our favorite village snack shop.

25. Share your hat. IMG_7702The very fashionable Wanho, absconding with my hat, after he got all better.

26. Share an umbrella. IMG_7197It’s a Chinese invention, just like acupuncture and moxibustion. Here’s my shifu with his new star disciple, Declan.

27. Take a walk. IMG_7486Isn’t the evening sky beautiful? After everything had been done one night, XiangXiang and her friend and I took a stroll together. First we went up to the top of the cul-de-sac, where her neighbor gave her stuff from his garden:IMG_7496Then we walked down to the temple and chatted with another friend. IMG_7515Until it got very dark and the mosquitoes came out and we had to head back up the hill.

28. Take a hike. IMG_7582This is Melanie and Tam from Austria. They were resting on their way up to Damodong. It was their first day of training, and the last day of mine. They needed help communicating with their shifu, who was taking them on a two-hour vertical hike. So I went along. My Chinese had improved remarkably since my arrival five weeks ago, and my back was good for kung fuing again. So this is how it worked: Tam spoke German to Melanie, who translated it into French in her head before speaking it in English to me. Then I translated the English into Chinese for Yan Jia, their shifu. And it worked in the reverse too! Here they made it all the way up to Damodong, the cave where Chan (Zen) buddhism started:IMG_7589I squeezed into a photo too, just to prove I made it all the way up in that sweltering afternoon in 100-degree heat:IMG_7590And we were still smiling.

29. Smile 😀 !

30. Do kung fu together. 9641964645_1725dd497b_bHow could I forget? It was the entire purpose of my trip — to learn kung fu, so that I could write about it in a future book. 9641965987_5504f2c678_bHe looks like a good protagonist, doesn’t he? And a strong father figure is always an important character in my stories . . . 9645204882_e4cc474b60_bAnd my own experience? How will I fit that in?9641968269_032647101e_bI can answer that in four words:

31. Don’t play with weapons. 9641825537_1cef4d5f82_b“Numbchucks? I can’t teach you numbchucks, but I bet my friend Pacifique can!”

32. Introduce your friends to friends. This is Pacifique BEFORE:IMG_7395And this is Pacifique AFTER:IMG_7546Oops. Actually, Pacifique hurt himself with his own weapon. Ouch!!! It’s not the best way to make friends (unless you want a doctor pal). It’s much nicer to . . .

33. Hold hands.9641964023_038a75f7a3_b

34. Keep holding hands.IMG_7298

35. Just hold hands.9645083504_f71a5fd810_oIt’s the best way to make friends anywhere.                                                                            * This post is dedicated to all my new friends and family in China, though none of them have access to wordpress, and to the Alvarez Family who spent their vacation with me. Additionally, I’m posting this on October 2, to wish Debbie Alvarez all best wishes on her birthday. Thank you, thank you, everyone, for giving me more inspiration than I could have ever hoped for.                                                                                                                       ** Many photos courtesy of Debbie Alvarez.

20 thoughts on “How to Make Friends in China

    • Love our friendship, your family and all the wonderful memories you gave me. Priceless, priceless, priceless. I can’t thank you enough. Many happy thoughts to you on your birthday.


  1. “You gotta eat like a vacuum cleaner on the shag carpet setting” You are a genius with words Lenore, this made me laugh out loud! Thanks also for posting it on Debbie’s special day, it will mean a lot to her. I’ve loved reading about your Kung Fu times and can’t wait to read how you use your experiences in your books x


    • Hey Seth, Thanks for stopping by! Wish you could have been there to take the pictures for me. You would have definitely captured the elusive, spiritual quality of this ancient place.


  2. that’s some fierce kung fu stance you got there, lenore! maybe you can demonstrate during your author visits at all the schools you visit! 🙂 i want to learn chinese calligraphy!!!! penmanship was my favorite subject in elementary school. (bill laughs when i first told him) but hey, i admire beautiful handwriting .. !!! even brought a calligraphy pen back then, but sadly, never learned. too bad schools don’t emphasize on penmanship anymore. at least i still have 1 child who has good handwriting ..! she gets praised & awarded for it constantly!!! yeah, my kind of girl! 🙂


  3. impressive garden from your landlady! my mom would be so happy!! she has a little garden of her own, and during the summer, gets a bountiful harvest of fu gua (bitter melon), dung gua (winter melon) (and they are HUGE!! i have to send you a pic to prove it!), basil, mint, thai chili peppers, tomatoes galore (all sizes), chinese long beans, etc. etc.


    • My mom has a cute little garden too, plus a FIG TREE from an Italian friend who gave her a little graft from hers. She gets a bumper crop of figs every year and freezes them. Frozen figs are tastier than candy!


  4. I loved your Kung Fu Stance, all the food and yummy meals, and I could really relate to the tears over the ruined dinner, been there, done that. Of course my favorite photo was of that magnificent garden at your landlady’s home. Can I have the welcome tomato and egg noodle recipe? And I would take flowers from a young Kung Fu master any day. How cute!


    • Thanks for stopping by, Joss. As for the recipe, scramble some eggs, sauteed some tomatoes together with garlic and ginger and green onions. Drop everything into soup noodles. Add salt, pepper and spices to taste. Very yummy!


  5. I am blown away by your trip. You have my admiration! If only Alvin Ho knew what you went through him. Oh — he will!

    The egg noodle recipe — possible to do at home, entirely by hand (no pasta machine)? Now that is AWEsome.

    Kind regards, and many thanks for sharing,

    Joy Chu


    • Thanks for stopping by, Joy. Yup, all the pasta was made by hand, no machines. Life is still wonderfully simple in the village. People constantly gave one another the best gifts — conversation and food.


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